Chef Curtis Duffy has struggled sourcing fennel. And it’s not just fennel — the pandemic has made it difficult to source all kinds of vegetables, he says, with some vendors closed and others not picking up their phones. The longer wait times have complicated Duffy’s creative process as he prepares for his long-awaited return to Chicago’s restaurant scene. To fully conceptualize a dish, he needs to have the item, say, a carrot, in hand before he can start to see it in a different, creative way that lends itself to his fine dining style.
Despite the logistical hiccups and tweaks brought about by the novel coronavirus, Duffy maintains a laser-like focus on his new restaurant. Ever follows Grace, the three Michelin-starred restaurant he commanded until its sudden closure in 2017. That page turns Tuesday with the debut of Ever, his stunning new West Loop restaurant where he and business partner and GM Michael Muser always have the final say.
“It’s unfortunate about the position that we’re in, but it doesn’t change the way I cook or see ingredients,” Duffy says. “I’m excited as hell. I’ve got that fire and intensity, the passion — there’s nothing we can’t do.”
Ever will open with an eight to 10-course tasting menu ($285 per person) that features meat and seafood, with three to four courses emphasizing seasonal vegetables with accompanying fruit, nuts, seeds, and grains. Duffy describes his menu as “light, green, herbaceous, [and] fun.” The tasting menu features squab with guajillo, raspberry, and sorrel, and an earthy-looking wagyu beef with sunchoke, orange, and tat soi.
Those familiar with Duffy’s work will recognize his delicate touch and whimsical plating. Education is part and parcel with Ever’s mission, and Duffy plans to introduce patrons to ingredients they may not have previously encountered — hoja santa, (also known as “root beer leaf”) for example — and combinations diners haven’t seen before. But even seemingly pedestrian items like butter become art at Ever. Take the verdant quenelle of seven-herb butter topped with fleur de sel sits beneath a satiny ribbon of white butter cultivated with black cypress salt that seems frozen mid-flutter.
Known for his thoughtful treatment of vegetables in particular, Grace was a haven for vegetarians, as Duffy offered a second tasting menu that was meat free. For now, Ever will only offer one menu (Duffy says he’ll be able to substitute items for vegetarians). The pandemic convinced Duffy to scale down from allowed diners a choice between vegetarian or meat-and-seafood tasting menus of 12 to 15 courses. Duffy says the change is about safety, minimizing the number of products in the kitchen and scaling down the number of staff needed to handle those items. Fewer staff means a safer space for diners, Duffy says. He plans to move forward with the vegetarian menu eventually, but didn’t say when.
Duffy and Muser have made much of an airy room between Ever’s entrance and its dining room, a brightly-lit space that serves as a hanging garden of dehydrated delights like paper-thin bisections of watermelon, pineapple, and more. The dangle from small chains affixed to the ceiling, represent “a glimpse of what you’ll be consuming,” on the tasting menu, Duffy says.
Initially, they planned to let diners snag and consume the suspended items, preparing their palettes and minds for the tasting menu. The pandemic has rendered the space more museum than eating area as the items have been rendered as simple decorations. Diners will pass through the space, pausing for a bite or sip, on their ways to the dining room. The Willy Wonka-like free-for-all won’t unfold like Duffy and Muser hoped.
It may not be the perfect opening he imagined, but Duffy knows that his goal of greatness was never going to come easily. He sees himself and Ever as objects in perpetual motion, drawing on the power of memory to lay a foundation for his vision, yet refusing to wallow in nostalgia or misgivings about the past. For Duffy, each seemingly minute tweak or edit to a dish builds toward the ultimate objective — a more perfect restaurant.
“It’s too easy to do the same thing over and over,” he says. “I don’t want to be a chef with a signature dish... We don’t need to change just to change, but we’ve got to be moving forward constantly.”